How Students With Autism Could Benefit From PBL: A Special Educator’s View

I am a Special Educator who has been teaching individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) for nearly ten years. These students have ranged from those with extremely complex needs to higher-functioning individuals at varying ages - from KS1 to College level. My last teaching post was working with young adults and adults (16+) at an amazing, specially-built ASD provision attached to a mainstream college. The ethos at this provision was that all young people, regardless of ability, should on some level be ready to go onto work, into independent living (supported living) or be more independent at home, to improve their community awareness skills and involvement, or move into post-secondary pathways and/or Higher education.

With all students that go through the schooling system, our greatest hope is that we have an impact on that young person’s life in such a way that it ensures for them better access to jobs, augmented independence and living skills, and an improved understanding of self, society and their place within it. The same is true for learners with special education needs, including those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

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Many of our ASD learners are less able to think outside of the box and often tend towards thinking literally. This is all the more reason for us to rethink the way we help guide them through their educational development so that we can help them to achieve the objectives outlined above. This is why authentic pedagogies like Project Based Learning (PBL) are even more important for our ASD learners. Let’s be candid that worksheet learning, where learners are told that something is correct, or the right way only reinforces the tendency for our learners with ASD to think literally and linearly. On the other hand, when we design authentic learning experiences wherein our learners on the spectrum can draw conclusions and engage in the relevant practice of key skills, they get opportunities to practice thinking in a myriad of ways. This will mirror the thinking they’ll need to do in their futures.

So what is the answer?

PBL (Project Based Learning) is a method in which learners are encouraged to engage in activities and allows learning to take place over a more gradual period, using subtle assessment techniques. Assessments may come in the form of observations, or through progressive assessment methods such as tracking sheets (for more information, take a look at the AFLS assessment criteria/curriculum). Summative assessments are a part of PBL; however, they may not come in the form of tests. Summative assessments may instead come through the evaluation of whether the student can complete the task assigned independently, or with less support than what was needed at the start of the process.

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For instance, a barrier to learning for a particular ASD learner could be that they become overstimulated by noise, but that they would like to work in a café after school or college. Through PBL, learning these skills could be introduced as a class project where learners make and sell coffees and cakes to faculty members, then to other students, then to the public – all building up to the point where the learner is confident and capable enough to work for a small time each week at a local café.

The PBL approach allows learners to increase their exposure to the practical experience incrementally. It also allows teachers to embed skills such as maths and English, cleaning, COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health), and other independent living skills, in an uncontrived manner. Practitioners can adapt the experience as they go through, as they begin to understand the barriers to this young person's learning better; for example, perhaps the introduction of ear defenders might help the learner cope with the noisy environment.

PBL is an exciting and interactive way for students to learn the most important skills for them. It is about adapting the way we do things for our students, rather than expecting them to adapt to the formula of teaching that we have traditionally used. Students learn through practical experiences, and hopefully, while having fun!

For more information about autism and resources for teaching social skills, see our sister website:

About the author:

Craig Van-de-Velde, PBL, Project Based Learning

Craig Van-de-Velde has been working alongside Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students for nearly ten years, working most recently as a Lecturer in ASD with students who demonstrate more complex learning needs, at South Thames College in London, United Kingdom. He is currently completing an MA in Autism and Asperger’s from the University of Kent. His particular interests are in creating fun and innovative resources, that help captivate students as well giving them the voice they deserve. I also believe that learning doesn’t always have to take place in the classroom - in fact, controlled, real-life learning can be an extremely powerful tool when working with students with special needs. Craig is a big advocate of getting students with special needs involved in competitions, PBL, or even a mini-business franchise as tools to learn the skills they need to progress.

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